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St Mary’s Church: How ‘heart of Islington’ was destroyed by war and rebuilt in peace

PUBLISHED: 10:06 16 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:06 16 April 2017

Rev Simon Harvey in front of St Mary's Church in Upper Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Rev Simon Harvey in front of St Mary's Church in Upper Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

St Mary’s, the mother church of Islington, needs to be renovated for the first time since the Blitz. The Gazette learns about the impact of that bomb.

St Mary's Church in Upper Street pictured shortly after it was bombed in 1940. Picture: Islington Local History CentreSt Mary's Church in Upper Street pictured shortly after it was bombed in 1940. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

At 10pm on September 9, 1940, St Mary’s Church in Upper Street burned to the ground.

On the third night of the Blitz, it became the first church in London to be destroyed in the Second World War. Only its steeple survived.

Arguably Islington’s key landmark, it took 16 years to rebuild the church on the same site.

Adorned above its entrance are the words: “Destroyed by war, rebuilt in peace.”

Now, Rev Simon Harvey is leading a £1.8million project for its first renovation since then. Before that, the last time had been in 1754.

“Lots of Islington people will still remember the church’s rubble after the Blitz,” Rev Harvey says.

St Mary's Church in 1940, before the Second World War bomb. Picture: St Mary's ChurchSt Mary's Church in 1940, before the Second World War bomb. Picture: St Mary's Church

“Everything was destroyed apart from the tower, so they had to rebuild the whole of the main church.

“It took such a long time as the war took its toll on London, but also because it took a long time to raise the money.”

The £25,000 cost (equivalent to £625,000 today) was eventually raised by fellow churches in Islington, as well as wealthy individuals.

There was also a contribution from Arsenal FC – something that is commemorated to this day on a pew in the church.

In the years in between, worshippers moved to the memorial hall next door. But inevitably, numbers dwindled.

“Like a lot of Londoners, people in Islington suffered,” says Rev Harvey. “Many lost their lives at home, and also fighting abroad.

Rev Simon Harvey inside St Marys Church. Picture: Polly HancockRev Simon Harvey inside St Marys Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

“But they also pulled together and that was demonstrated by how our numbers grew again once the church reopened.

“The original church was the same size as the design in 1940, but with a very dark interior. The architects aimed for something very different, and very daring. So the new build had lots of light.

“It’s a radical piece of modern architecture – if ever there was going to be a radical church design, it was going to be in Islington!”

Its objectives, however, remained exactly the same.

“St Mary’s has always found a way of fulfilling people’s practical needs – not just spiritual.

“In the 19th century we had a soup kitchen, and it was also where Islington’s first fire engine was based.

Rev Simon Harvey has a list of 70 repairs for St Mary's Church in Islington. Picture: Polly HancockRev Simon Harvey has a list of 70 repairs for St Mary's Church in Islington. Picture: Polly Hancock

“We’ve always worked with young people, and that remains today with our Mary’s Youth Club. We have 2,000 people pass through our doors every week, with 60 groups.”

The latest renovation has been called the “heart of Islington” project.

The church needs to fix 70 defects to the building, which has led to it being named on the Heritage at Risk list. It will also overhaul its underused and overgrown community garden, as well as build a neighbourhood centre.

Just as in 1956, St Mary’s is relying on charity to see this £1.8m project push through.

But Rev Harvey, who has been vicar at the church for seven years, has no doubt it will happen.

“The ‘heart of Islington’ project is another example of a community of faith doing new things,” he said.

“The faith we have in God, which we celebrated at Easter, gives us the confidence to do good things for Islington.”

For more information about the ‘heart of Islington’ project, visit stmaryislington.org/heart-of-islington


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